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Fecal Culture

What Is a Fecal Culture?

A fecal culture is a laboratory test used to determine what types of bacteria are present in your digestive tract. Some types of bacteria can cause infection or disease. By testing your feces, or stool, your doctor can learn which types of bacteria are present. This can help them figure out the cause of digestive symptoms, as well as the appropriate treatment plan.

The test is quick, painless, and relatively easy. It was formally known as an enteric pathogens culture or a stool culture.

Why a Fecal Culture Is Done

According to the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, a fecal culture test may be done if you have chronic, persistent digestive problems. Symptoms might include:

  • abdominal pain
  • cramping
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • blood or mucus in your stool
  • fever

Before ordering the test, your doctor will ask questions to learn if a food-borne illness has caused your symptoms. For example, you might experience similar reactions if you recently ate uncooked eggs or improperly processed foods. Your doctor will also ask if you have traveled outside of the United States. International travelers are sometimes at a higher risk of food contamination, especially if they’ve been in developing nations.

People with healthy immune systems typically recover naturally from minor digestive infections without any problems. However, those with weakened immune systems may need antibiotics to help fight infections. This can include infants, older adults, and people with certain diseases, such as HIV/AIDS.

Your doctor may order more than one stool test over a period of time. This can help them check if treatments are working or your infection is getting worse.

The Risks of Fecal Culture

There are no risks associated with a fecal culture test. However, your stool sample may contain infectious pathogens that you can spread to others. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly with antibacterial soap after collecting your sample.

How to Prepare for a Fecal Culture

Your doctor will give you equipment to collect your stool sample. This includes a container that you will need to return with your stool sample for testing.

If you’re having trouble producing a sample, a green salad or some high-fiber foods may help to move your digestive tract along.

How a Fecal Culture Is Performed

A stool sample is typically collected using a piece of wax paper spread across your toilet bowl. It should be held in place by your toilet seat.

Once you’ve collected a sample of your stool on the wax paper, place it in the container provided and give it to your doctor.

From there, your sample is sent to a laboratory where it will be placed into a special dish that allows bacteria to grow. The sample is viewed under a microscope to check for bacteria. The results are then sent to your doctor.

After a Fecal Culture Is Done

Your doctor will use the results to determine the type of bacteria in your digestive system. They may find certain bacteria that can cause infection or disease, or they may rule out bacteria as the reason behind your problems. Once they’ve identified the cause of your symptoms, they can prescribe the appropriate antibiotic or other treatment course. If they determine that bacteria aren’t causing your symptoms, you may need to undergo other tests.

The Takeaway

A fecal culture provides a simple, risk-free way for your doctor to learn about the bacteria in your digestive system. Some types of bacteria can cause infections and diseases. If you’ve been experiencing persistent digestive problems, such as diarrhea, vomiting, or nausea, speak to your doctor. They may request a fecal culture to help diagnose the cause of your problem.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Brian Krans
Medically reviewed on: Mar 15, 2016: George Krucik, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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